Soniya Gokhale (00:05):
Welcome back to another episode of A Desi Woman podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale, and the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is a Desi woman? She is a dynamic, fearless and strong woman. She is your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us who is on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale and I am a Desi woman.
Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello, and welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman podcast. I am your host Soniya Gokhale, and today, in honor of International Women’s Day, we are so excited to welcome retired Indian Air Force officer, mountaineer, motivational speaker, research scholar, and travel writer, Toolika Rani. Toolika is the first woman from Uttar Pradesh, India to climb Mount Everest and the first Indian woman to climb the highest volcano of Asia, known as Mount Damavand in Iran. Toolika served in the Indian Air Force for a decade and was a squadron leader and outdoor training instructor in the prestigious Indian Air Force Academy in Hyderabad, India. And she was even involved in the physical training of hundreds of future officers, including India’s first three women fighter pilots.
Soniya Gokhale (01:40):
With 23 mountaineering expeditions and trucks in India, Nepal, Butan, Iran, Africa, and Russia under her belt, Toolika is now working on her PhD, continuing to train for future tracks. And she serves as a motivational speaker, which includes a hugely popular TED Talk. And she has been featured widely in mainstream media across India and South Asia. She’s a staunch advocate of women’s rights and human rights globally. Toolika, welcome to the show.
Toolika Rani (02:16):
Hi Soniya, thank you for having me here.
Soniya Gokhale (02:18):
Toolika, I want to say that the messages you received from your family, and especially your mother growing up, are such a tremendous example of female empowerment and a genuine belief in the human spirit. You were taught that you only have this life to pursue your dreams and goals and that nothing can get in your way. So long as your mind believes it, you can achieve it. Wow, if every young girl or woman received this method growing up, what could be accomplished on planet earth? So really, really impressed by that. And you’ve talked a lot about your spiritual beliefs and faith. And I want to ask you what is going through your mind as you ascend a mountain? Do you go into a meditative state? Will you rely on your deep spiritual beliefs and constantly have to retain mindfulness in assessing the physical challenges along the way? I would imagine there’s a variety of protocols and situational awareness that is needed, but I’d really like to hear more from you on that, because in my estimation, this mindset is what really separates those who make it to the top and those who unfortunately do not.
Toolika Rani (03:44):
On different stages of climbing, I have a different kind of a mindset. I would say that if I fail, there might be an avalanche, there might be a root wash, there might be bad weather or something, which has derailed my plans to climb a mountain. I get into a very confrontational mode because I’m trained as a soldier and I have that thing to fight my adversity. So at times, I start seeing the mountain as my adversity. It happened to me on Mount Everest when I had to … in my second attempt, also, I had to turn back from 23,000 feet twice before I made my third attempt and succeeded. So in those two attempts, I started challenging Everest that either you can give me death or injury, you can go ahead and give me that and I will keep on doing what I’m capable of doing.
Toolika Rani (04:37):
So sometimes I get into that kind of confrontational mode, where I see that yes, the mountain in front of me is the obstacle that I have to overcome. He or it is an enemy and I have to fight it with all my might that I have. Sometimes from within me, there are certain sentences, a quote or something, perhaps a poem that just springs up when the conditions are really tough. I’m climbing, but I’m very exhausted and the going gets very, very tough, I have seen these kind of flashes coming from within. A poem by Rudyard Kipling, everybody must have heard about this poem, a very famous for poem, If. So there was this line from this poem, If, that when everything is finished and when nothing is left in you, there is still a voice in your head which says, hold on. So at one point of time, this word, hold on, just sprung up in my mind.
Toolika Rani (05:36):
And I just continued. I just held on and kept my foot one foot after another, in front of each foot. So that is how it happens. Sometimes, yes, it is very spiritual because mountains are so beautiful. I get into that meditative state also, where I contemplate the nature of life, seeing a mountain. See, a mountain just stands alone. So anybody who is strong, mighty, and wants to rise high, perhaps in life would be like that, alone, solitary, having his or her own battles, and also facing all kinds of storms, weathers, rain, cold, snowfall, everything, but still standing very tall. And after that, I observed that see, there are clouds at times, at times it is sunny. So this is how life also is. On mountains, what I love the most about is that I don’t have that usual cloud around me. My mind is very calm and I can observe the flow of nature over there, because I do believe very firmly that human beings are a part of nature and all the lessons of this life, all the answers of our questions are there in the nature.
Toolika Rani (06:57):
If we quietly just observe any element of nature, be it mountains, be it rivers, be it clouds, be it trees, we would find all the answers that we seek and everything will become quiet in our own head and we will be clear as to what we are, what we are supposed to do, what we are capable of doing. So this is what all happens to me on the mountains. I do write. There’s a lot of time to write over there. When we have done the days climbing, I sit down and write whatever comes to my mind. I would like to recite one or two lines over here of one of the poems, though I wrote it in Hindi. I will translate it later. It was like, [foreign language 00:07:43]. I just happened to observe a sapling coming out of a rock, and it made me think that [foreign language 00:07:59], that even tearing a rock, a sapling can come up. So this is how life shall be. Even in tough conditions, adverse conditions, one shall have this much of surviving capability that one can come out, tearing even a rock. These are the lessons that I have learned from mountains.
Soniya Gokhale (08:19):
That is absolutely exceptionally beautiful. And I do hope you write a book about this, by the way, because it’s so motivational. And I think it’s very fascinating that in some respects, your military background prepared you. You almost view this as going into battle, and yet I can imagine that at times the mountain transforms into your friend, not as much an adversary. And yet at other times, clearly it becomes much more challenging to get to the top. And I just want to underscore the fact that the mortality rate, there are people that do not make it. And if you could speak to me about that, what is the scene now? I mean, are there climbers that unfortunately meet their demise?
Toolika Rani (09:08):
Yes, there are. Mount Everest, and for that matter, any of the mountains above 8,000 meters, they are called the mountains in dead zones. And it is very difficult for a human being to survive there, because scientifically it is proven that the human body is not meant to survive above 23,000 feet. That is the limit of acclimatization. However much you exercise and you prepare yourself physically, when you get into that 26,000 feet zone, it is dead zone, and the altitude would wreak havoc with your body. So yes, I have seen those mountaineers who are resting there eternally, and I feel very humbled on seeing them, because when I was climbing Everest, I had to pass through their bodies. And when I reached the top, my first sentence was to thank God for making me reach here alive. And I just prayed that I am able to reach down safely alive.
Toolika Rani (10:13):
It makes you so humble that life and death, they’re not in our hands, firstly. We live with so much of an inflated ego when we live on plains. Mountains, the first thing they do to you is to make you humble. They make you realize that you are just a speck of dust in front of this element of nature. In this universe, human beings are just as tiny, small speck, nothing more. And we have to understand this, even when we live in plains, that we are trying to become the masters of nature. We are not, because nature at each step teaches us, reminds us this, that you are my [inaudible 00:10:52], you are my baby, you are my child. Do not try to become my masters and control me and do not try to destroy me beyond the point, because then perhaps I’ll come and slap you. So this is what perhaps we were seeing during COVID.
Toolika Rani (11:05):
And we had this kind of perspective that what human beings are doing to nature, and that is self devastating and self-destructing. So when I saw those bodies of mountaineers, I paid my homage to them, because for a mountaineer, perhaps the best place to rest eternally is the mountains. Though their families must be really grieved, but that is how it is. Somewhere death has to come. And if it comes in the pursuit of your goal, what better death can be? So this is what I feel, but yes, as a sportsperson, as a mountaineer, I would say that stretching one’s limits are fine, but one has to understand one’s body, and if we have to take a decision to turn back at a particular point, we must take that judicial decision, thinking that it is not yet the end of our journey. We’ll come back again. But if that has to happen, it will happen anytime, anywhere. So I do pay my respect to them and I take it in a spiritual way, that God thank you that it is not yet my time, but if my time comes, I would take that also.
Soniya Gokhale (12:13):
Well, that’s phenomenal. And I think what strikes me the most is this requires so much self-awareness, not only physically, but I would offer spiritually, mentally, and situational awareness. You’re constantly having to assess your environment and how is your body responding to it. Now, the other question I have for you is in regard to sustainability. As you mentioned, I wholly agree with you about nature. I think it is the most profound way to really understand yourself. And as you stated, we don’t control nature, it controls us. We are a speck, as you noted. And I wanted to hear more about concerns you might have around sustainability. I have heard that Mount Everest, unfortunately, is often littered with trash. And is this a concern for you in general and for planet earth?
Toolika Rani (13:08):
Yes, it does. As a Mountaineer, yes, I have seen all those oxygen bottles littered up there, some discarded equipment littered up, high up on the mountain. It really pains me, but what is heartening nowadays is that there are cleaning expeditions, specifically expeditions to clean Mount Everest. And there’s a lot of awareness coming in mountaineers and other organizations regarding this, because Himalayas specifically are the source of life. Most of the perennial rivers of India and Asian countries run down from the glaciers of Himalayas. And we have to understand the relationship of Himalayas with the life on plains, also. It is not a life in isolation, that life on Himalayas is different and life on the plains is different. It is interconnected, rather.
Toolika Rani (13:57):
So we derive our life source from Himalayas, and that is why we have to be very mindful of the fact as to what we take up there and what we leave there, that as they say that only bring down memories and leave nothing just for trends. So this is the awareness that needs to come in the people who are venturing into the mountains. Government is also trying to do its bit, I suppose, on this. And there are various organizations like UNFCCC. So we have this United Nations organization also doing some work upon this. The Sagarmatha committee, they have their various expeditions in Nepal to clean Mount Everest. On other mountains also, I would say that when people like me, we are the mountaineers, and down in the plains we speak to a lot of people about our mountaineering expeditions.
Toolika Rani (14:51):
So rather than glorifying ourselves as superheroes, because we are not superheroes, we have faced all these physical and mental, emotional problems while climbing, first thing is that we must mention both the aspects of climate, the laurels, the glory, the awards, as well as the pain, hardships, and the struggles. Second, when we speak to the children or people in the plains, we have to spread this awareness of this interconnectedness of Himalayas, of mountains in general, and the life down below, so that each one of us does our best to keep it clean. Because see, as they say, Himalayas are the abode of God. So even if we do not believe in it, somebody, a spiritual person like me, would believe that Himalayas are the abode of God. But even if we see it as a practical resource, there is so much of practicality in saving Himalayas and the other mountains.
Soniya Gokhale (15:49):
Excellent. Okay, great. And my next question for you pertains to a rite of passage that every Indian woman is familiar with, certainly, but all women globally contemplate marriage. And so you are married and I wanted to ask, did that affect your mountaineering? Or I would presume, after talking to you during this interview, that you would settle for nothing less than a partner that was your equal and that would embrace all that you are pursuing in this endeavor, but we’d love to hear more from you on this topic.
Toolika Rani (16:25):
I do agree that women face certain kind of setbacks after marriage, especially in a very conventional kind of a setup, because suddenly after marriage, the whole perspective of life is supposed to change and the family needs to take precedence over anything else. But in my case, I have chosen an unconventional life here again. I just did not get into marriage because it has to happen at a particular age or something. I was very particular about having the right partner who would understand that I as a human being, as a person, have a special relationship with my walk, with my climbing, with my writing, perhaps, with the kind of public work that I do, and is supportive of these things.
Toolika Rani (17:14):
So my husband is also a mountaineering instructor, and that is why we have a lot of understanding on these issues. But for other women, I would say that if you have to wait for that right person, it is all right to wait. Do not come under the pressure of the society that now you have attained a particular age and you need to get married. No, you do not need to get married just for the sake of it. It is not a requirement. We are also complete beings in ourselves. Marriage is a part of life, marriage is not the entire life. And I would advise women not to give up their own identities, their own work, their own whole being as a person for marriage.
Toolika Rani (17:59):
In ways, marriage is just one aspect of your life, but you have other aspects also. So you are a human being, you are a professional, you are perhaps a public speaker, writer, or journalist, or whatever. Let that thing also remain in the same quantity that it earlier was. So this is my perspective on marriage. And both the partners need to understand that apart from being somebody’s husband or somebody’s wife, we are also individual beings. I here remember a poem by [inaudible 00:18:31] on marriage. When he says that both of us … he says for a man and a woman married that both of us will drink from our own cups, but we will drink together. We will drink together, but from our own cups. So this is the kind of concept of marriage I have. We live together, but we are not an extension of the other person. You are not a photocopy of the other person.
Soniya Gokhale (18:58):
I think that is absolutely a beautiful definition. And so now I do want to pivot to talking about what your next expeditions might be and what you have planned.
Toolika Rani (19:10):
Mt. Cho Oyu in Nepal, which is the sixth highest mountain on earth is my next expedition. And I am in the process of collecting finances again, because as you said, we have to wait sometimes for this to happen. So whenever it happens, this will be my next expedition. As soon as I’m able to get the finances and the right conditions to climb mountains, I would climb to Mount Cho Oyu in Nepal.
Soniya Gokhale (19:40):
Well, that sounds wonderful. And I do want to ask you … I can’t believe we’re at this point in the interview, but as we close today, I have to say that, oh my gosh, you’ve offered so much wisdom, but what other messages do you have to any global listeners right now? And many of your messages, I would offer, are universal. Whatever you’re facing in life, it may not be a mountain, but metaphorically speaking, it could be life in general. And I want to hear what messages you have for somebody that may be listening that is feeling hopeless, that is feeling lost, that feels that they can’t accomplish a goal. What would you say to them?
Toolika Rani (20:22):
My words would be remain a human being. The problem in today’s world is that we are surrounded by machines and we are less connected to the human beings in our own families, in our own circles around us. Why have you stopped smiling on seeing a person? Why can’t we have that genuine smile? You try this on anybody. So you try this on a stranger also. if you give a genuine smile, the person most reliably would smile back at you and you would be able to initiate a conversation. I’m not talking about rude people here, but the genuine sincere people. And we do have a lot of them around us. So feeling lost and hopeless is one condition that happens to all of us at some point of time.
Toolika Rani (21:08):
But we need to remember that we are not alone here, because as a child, I understood one truth. When somebody asked me, “Who are your friends?” And we generally ask children, I said, “I have three friends. One is God, another nature, and I, myself.” So that is why I have not felt alone in my life most of the times, because God, nature and I, myself, these three beings would always remain with me no matter what. Other people might have to leave you because of their own circumstances, but these, God, nature, and you, yourself would never leave you. So that is one. Another is I would like to emphasize more on human connectedness, on oneness of this human family. It pains me deeply to see human beings divided on various fronts, on various fault lines, religion, [inaudible 00:22:06], nationality, gender, race, all these things. We have created it. God has not created it.
Toolika Rani (22:12):
So as in Buddhism, they say that … Buddhism and Hinduism both, soul has no gender. So Buddhism doesn’t believe in souls, but they say that human beings have perhaps no gender distinctions on the basis of their work and merit. Hinduism says that soul has no gender. So we do not have these distinctions created by anybody but us. So I, in my own personal life, try to strive above these distinctions and see a human being purely as a human being worthy of my love, affection, and respect, for the basic fact that he or she is a human being. So that dignity, that love, respect is awarded to them automatically. So we have to feel this. Nature would tell us everything. When I am sad, I just sit below my mango tree and I observe it in all the weathers. I see that in autumn, it sheds its leaves, but autumn is not permanent.
Toolika Rani (23:14):
I would also observe that when the spring comes there will be flowering again, there will be fruits again, there will be new leaves again. So when they observe these life cycles of plants, of any of the elements of nature, we realize that our life cycles are also matching these. And we do not have to lose hope, because nothing is permanent here. If there are adverse times, these times will pass, because it is a continuous cycle. Life is a circle. Life not a straight line going in. So if you are today facing any adversity in your relationships, in your work fund, or any matter in life, you have to understand this, that this time will pass. Neither happiness nor sadness will remain permanent.
Toolika Rani (24:04):
I was just observing some plants on my terrace. And during cold, these plants just survived. I was watching them each day, but they were not starting any new leaves. And I was thinking, is my labor going into waste? No new leaf is coming. But now when the spring has come, I have learned a very big lesson of my life, that in tough times, the natural elements just focus on surviving. They might not be visibly thriving, but they are just focusing on surviving. And when the right time comes, that booming will happen. So this is the lesson I have learned for myself. And this is what I would follow in my life also, that in tough times, focus on surviving with a hope that when the time comes, the spring will come.
Soniya Gokhale (24:54):
That is absolutely beautiful. And we cannot thank you enough for joining us today, Toolika Rani. You have given us so much to think about and learn, and one of the most inspiring speakers. Thank you so much.
Toolika Rani (25:10):
Thank you so much. It was my pleasure speaking to you. God bless you.